The Bowman-Phelps bond long ago transcended a teacher-student relationship. At the Golden Goggles, as he was accepting his third straight Coach of the Year award, Bowman tried to put into words his feelings for Phelps. When he choked up, he merely patted his heart and it was all he could do to say four words: "Michael, I love you."
Since the Olympics their relationship has taken on another dimension, as they are the only partners in Aquatic Ventures, LLC, which last month took a controlling interest in Meadowbrook and the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. When Bowman left Meadowbrook after the 2004 Athens Olympics to become men's coach at the University of Michigan, Phelps (who had won the first six of his Olympic-record 14 career golds at those Games) followed him, and Ann Arbor remained their training base through Beijing. Afterward, Phelps felt the pull of home, and Bowman followed him back to Baltimore. Meadowbrook is where Bowman will train Phelps for the 2012 Olympics, and they have grand plans for a 78-year-old facility that has a lot of character (a polite way of putting it). "We want to turn it into one of the best places to train in the country," says Phelps. "We want to attract the best swimmers, have the best facilities, the best environment. Bob and I want the best of everything. That's just our personalities."
There is plenty of aesthetic work to be done, but even with a 50-meter outdoor pool that is open from Memorial Day through September, Meadowbrook can't accommodate many new swimmers; there are already 1,000 year-round family memberships and another 500 or so in the summer. When Phelps resumes serious training next month, he will sometimes find himself in a lane next to kids in swim diapers or seniors trying to loosen up arthritic joints. Locally, there has been a lot of speculation about the possibility of Aquatic Ventures' buying a boarded-up ice rink that abuts the property; knock down the rink and the land would offer Meadowbrook enough space to add a couple of new pools. All Phelps will say is that "there are a million ideas right now, and it is going to take a little time to sort everything out."
But turning Meadowbrook into a destination for elite swimmers is only part of Phelps's vision. Increasing participation rates among kids around the country and expanding their access to the water is one of the primary goals of the nascent Michael Phelps Foundation, the seed money for which came from Phelps's donating the $1 million bonus Speedo gave him for winning his record eight golds. At the Golden Goggles the host USA Swimming Foundation played a video that cited drowning as the second-leading cause of accidental death among five- to 14-year-olds in the U.S. Listening intently, Phelps responded with a few violent shakes of his head that could have been roughly translated as, Not on my watch. "Hearing that, it's shocking," he says. "It needs to change. The reason I started swimming was water safety, pure and simple. I have a passion for keeping kids safe. My mission is to teach as many as I can to swim. It's not about chasing medals—you never know when you're going to be put in a situation that's life or death."
Phelps has long gravitated toward children. Going back to his early high school years he was a regular celebrity guest at the Boys and Girls Club in Aberdeen, Md. "Children know if you're not being real with them, and they respond to Michael because everything he does is from the heart," says Darlene Lilly, who oversees the Aberdeen club. "A few years ago we had an event to honor him, and he seemed so happy after all the cameras and all the adults left because he got to go into the gym with the kids and play basketball, Foosball and all sorts of games for what seemed like hours."
Perhaps because he was regularly hazed by the older swimmers he competed against—during practice a couple of the bigger boys would toss him from lane to lane like a beach ball—Phelps has a knack for befriending those who might benefit from a little extra attention. He has long been close to Mason Surhoff, 16, who is autistic and who trains at Meadowbrook to swim the 50 and 100 freestyle and 50 back in the Special Olympics. Phelps invented a game in which Mason wears a Velcro belt that attaches to a rubber resistance cord. While a brawny adult stands on one side of the pool holding the end of the cord, Phelps tows Mason to the opposite side. Then Phelps lets the boy go, and Mason shoots across the top of the water shrieking and flapping his arms wildly. "The look on his face, it's beyond priceless," says Phelps. He has also taught Mason how to spritz water out of a pylon by releasing it from the bottom of the pool.
"It's very juvenile stuff, obviously," says Mason's mom, Polly, with a laugh, "but he loves it. His relationship with Michael is very important to him. He takes a long time to warm up to people, and many have a hard time relating to him. His speech, his actions, they're very different, and a lot of people don't know how to react. Michael could care less about all that. He has such a young spirit, and there is a goofiness about him that is so attractive to kids."
Mason is a savant who long ago memorized large swaths of The Baseball Encyclopedia, including the statistics of his dad, B.J., a former major league leftfielder. Now he is committing to memory Phelps's myriad records. Inspired by Mason, Phelps has taped public-service announcements for and donated money to the advocacy group Pathfinders for Autism. At the height of the post-Beijing hysteria Phelps cleared his schedule to model clothing at a Pathfinders benefit in Baltimore.
REACHING OUT seems to come naturally to a swimmer noted for his vast wingspan. In late 2004 Phelps made his only public misstep when he ran a stop sign in Salisbury, Md., and was charged with DUI. (He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 18 months' probation.) He confronted the fallout forthrightly, with public apologies and a heartfelt talk at the Aberdeen Boys and Girls Club about taking responsibility for your actions. Not long after the DUI made news, the first Golden Goggle Awards ceremony was held, and NBC's Ebersol received an award to open the night. He did not have prepared remarks, and when he stepped onstage he locked eyes with Phelps, sitting at a table in the front row. They were only casual acquaintances, yet Ebersol dedicated his speech to the young swimmer. "People were being pretty tough on Michael right then, and I said that the swimming world should be proud of him because of his great character," recalls Ebersol. "Yes, he made a mistake, but he took the heat in the same way he wins big races—with class, with dignity, without ego."
By the time Ebersol left the dais, Debbie Phelps was crying and Michael, too, was openly emotional.